“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” said Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and statesman.
While India has made remarkable progress on the economic front in recent years, the same cannot be said of our track record on the social front, especially in areas of child development. Our country ranks 129th on the Child Development Index, and it is critical that this gets our attention because the real health of a country can be measured by how we look after our children. The figures are quite alarming. 44% of children under the age of two continue to remain unvaccinated, adding up to 13 million unimmunised children susceptible to deadly diseases. 40% of these children are underweight. The reasons are many—misinformation and superstition regarding the use of vaccines tops the list, followed by lack of proper cold chain storages in far flung areas (often vaccines tend to become ineffective before they are administered to children), to parents hailing from poverty stricken communities who cannot afford to bring their children to primary healthcare centres for vaccination.
Take the case of a community in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. In that community, for generations, many newborns did not even live to see their first birthday. In an age old tradition, which had trickled down generations, the community believed that the survival of the newborn or the mother is pre-determined and no extra care or immunisation should interfere with the inevitable. It was only after persistent effort by project SSDC (Sundarban Social Development Centre) for a decade that the community started letting go of its superstitions, bit by bit. While they once had very little awareness about health-checkups, pre-natal care for pregnant mothers, care and immunisation for the newborn, they now realise the importance of medical attention, especially in the first five years. Many babies are now regularly taken for health check-ups at Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres and get timely immunisations. Regular check-ups, supplements and immunisations for expectant mothers have ensured healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries of healthy children.
The gaps that exist are many. While the government has implemented schemes like ICDS under which Aanganwadi centres (AWCs) provide care and supplementary nutrition to children below the age of 6, the reach of these schemes is not as it should be. Only about 52% of children under 6 years receive supplementary nutrition from ICDS; and AWCs cater to less than a third of the children they are supposed to cater to. Lack of access to service, insufficient care for mothers, little awareness and sensitisation lead to many children missing out on the crucial care and attention needed in this phase, which might result in permanent damage to a child’s development. The issue needs immediate intervention.
The importance of the first five years in a child’s life cannot be understated. It is these formative years that shape children’s future health, happiness, growth and development in the family and community, and in life in general. Development of the brain is at its peak in these crucial years and has a direct impact on the child’s learning skills, and social and emotional skills later in life. A healthy start for mothers and children ensuring access to proper healthcare, nutrition and early childhood care, resulting in sound physical, emotional and cognitive growth of a child, is thus extremely important.
By creating awareness within communities to address maternal, neonatal, child health needs; informing parents about healthcare services; finding solutions to overcome challenges and accessing these services, grassroots child welfare partners work towards ensuring that local public healthcare and AWCs have the necessary infrastructure and qualified health workers to provide effective delivery of quality maternal and child healthcare.
The child’s immediate micro environment needs to be taken care of. A child should have an environment wherein he or she enjoys the entire process of growing. Lack of adequate care for the child at this stage could result in permanent damage to its development, which affects her for the rest of the life. If we don’t focus on children at this age, many later developmental milestones get fundamentally affected.
With both China and North Korea increasing its domestic investments in women’s and children’s health, India must realise that investing in the health of our children will bring in profitable growth for our country in the long run.
Kreeanne Rabadi is Director, Western Region, Child Rights and You (CRY)